CRUSHING THE DOUBLE WHAMMY OF BIGOTRY: The Pluck of Katherine Goble Johnson

Backstreet Djeli 5By William “Duke” Smither

“When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one–it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. I see the neglect in cities around the country, in poor white children in West Virginia and Virginia and Kentucky–in the big cities, too, for that matter. I see the neglect of Native American children in the concentration camps called reservations. The powerful say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps….’ What they’re really saying is, ‘If you can, do, but if you can’t, forget it’…” (“Maya Angelou,” American “Poet Par Excellence,” Author, Activist, Actress & Playwright— from her 1995 Interview with “Mother Jones Magazine”)

* “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…” 

Before the Interstate-64 straight-through-connector, in the Appalachian-Blue Ridge Mountains, between Sam Black Church, West Virginia and Big Sandy River, Kentucky, road trips from Richmond, Virginia to my hometown in Frankfort, Kentucky used to be an arduous task. I’ve long been familiar with the rugged beauty of the Appalachia, as well as the sociocultural challenges of growing up there, since my own family hails from the Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio regions of Appalachia. Yet, until a recent research assignment for, I never knew that an African-American pioneer in Aerospace Engineering– Katherine Goble Johnson— a lion-hearted soul in the face of bigotry, came from those mountains, too (See:

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

It seemed to me that the Katherine Johnson story was not unlike the narrative of the life journey for many African-Americans, growing up in the Jim Crow South. It was a journey that saw many parents of black, white and Native American families, including my own mom and dad, struggle and sacrifice, not just to survive but to make sure their children charted a course to steer clear of the bigotry and hate within their own pursuits of happiness, in the illusive American dream.

But, it was a “dream” which often became an undeniable “nightmare” for African-Americans– as well as poor whites and Native Americans, too– before, during and after Old Jim Crow’s conjured up legal and social color barriers which continue to plague our nation, today.

You see, in my opinion, the well-kept secret in America is that racism and discrimination not only impacts the African-American, it goes to straight to the bone of its perceived poor, as well– like some invisible and fixed, “fifth dimension” of bigotry– and, like Pawns on the sociopolitical chessboard of life… even like the double whammy of racism and sexism against African-American women in America!

For me, traveling home through the Appalachian-Blue Ridge region was often a stunningly alluring trip back in time. Frankly, words alone cannot express the breath-taking beauty associated with the area’s rising mountain tops and plunging lush-green valleys. Yet, as I approached the various highway signs along the way, my mind often raced back to certain childhood experiences, pleasant and not-so-pleasant, easily triggered under certain circumstances.

The way I saw it, they must have been similar sensations to what Katherine Johnson experienced on her journey– especially after taking the old Route 60 scenic trail, passing White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia where she was born in 1918. She was only seven years younger than my mother, but her life observations weren’t all that far apart. Mother often spoke of racism with joke-filled warnings, as she once spoke of the Antebellum South’s Greenbrier resort area, not far from White Sulfur Springs, where the rich and famous, “…and not-so-famous, sick folk and sicker minds” have been hanging out since the American Revolution. Of course, things are much improved, today.

* “Keep Ancient Lands, Your Storied Pomp…”

On trips home to Kentucky, while snaking through the Blue Ridge Mountains and zigzagging across the Appalachian’s, historic roadside markers, highway signs and names of towns would pop up, like little virtual, on-line advertisements. Though somewhat annoying from the memories it triggered, it was a kaleidoscope of history just the same– like Katherine Johnson’s story– like the story of other accomplished African-American or so-called ‘minority’ professionals in the United States.

Without a doubt, she was a whiz kid!  Heralded as the first African-American woman in Aerospace Engineering, Katherine Johnson was born in a city where schooling for “colored” people then ended with the eighth grade. She was the daughter of Joshua and Joylette Coleman. Her dad, a farmer and janitor who quit school after the sixth grade, moved the family 125 miles from their White Sulfur Springs home to Institute, West Virginia so that Katherine and her older siblings, Charles, Margaret, and Horace, could attend school beyond the eighth grade.  Her father returned home to work the farm while her mother, a former teacher, became a domestic worker and stayed with the children in Institute.

Various biographical sketches show that Katherine possessed signs of being a mathematical genius early in life. She once explained to biographers that she counted “everything”– the steps at home and the plates she washed, as well as the number of steps from her house to the church she attended– citing her father as the one from whom she inherited her love for numbers.  She felt that her gift was inherited from her father. Although he never completed his formal education, she said that when he was working with lumber, he could tell how many boards he could get from a tree, simply by the way it looked to him.

Katherine also explained that she was five years old when she first started school, but went she went straight into the second grade. And, when she was supposed to enter fifth grade, she was selected among the “best” of the fifth graders and placed in the sixth grade for a newly opened school, leap-frogging one grade-level above her older brother.

Skipping grades helped her to start high school at 10. Before graduating at 14, she had also developed an interest in astronomy. Armed with a full scholarship, including room and board, she entered West Virginia State College (formerly West Virginia State College), “across the street from where she grew up.” During her sophomore year, a young professor from Michigan, W.W. (William Waldron) Schiefflin Claytor, the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, recognized her math prowess and added special courses in advanced math. In one course, analytic geometry, she was reportedly the only pupil. It was Dr. Claytor who planted the seed that she would make a good research mathematician. At 18, she graduated summa cum laude (with highest honor) with a Bachelor of Science degree in French and mathematics.

* “A Mighty Woman With A Torch, Whose Flame Is The Imprisoned Lightning…”

2009 Christmas party

2009 Christmas party

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Katherine began teaching in rural Virginia and West Virginia schools. Her first job was at an elementary school where she responded to a telegram saying, if she could teach math and French, and play the piano, the job was hers. But, on the bus ride to her first assignment, in Marion, Virginia, she ran into a haunting experience with racism.

According to archives, the bus stopped when it crossed from West Virginia into Virginia. Segregation Laws forced Katherine and all of the other black people to move to the rear. Later, when they changed buses, white passengers were allowed on the bus, while black riders were put into taxis. The bus driver’s demand, that “… you colored folk, come over here,” triggered her memory of her mother’s warning, like my mother’s nifty cautioning’s, about persistent racism and “pea-brain” racists.  

A couple of years later, Katherine married James Francis Goble and started a family. They had three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Kathy. She returned to teaching to help support her family, when her husband fell ill with cancer. But, in 1952, the seed that Dr. Claytor had planted began to sprout and, while visiting relatives in Newport News, Virginia, she learned of new job opportunities for black women in mathematics at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915-1958), the agency that preceded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, 1958-   ).

A year later, she was working there as a research mathematician.  Thumbing her nose at racialized intellectual snobbery, her soft-spoken assertiveness, command for respect and mathematical skills led her to assist NACA’s all-male team of engineers tasked with finding solutions to America’s space-flight navigation problems. Unfortunately, while kick-starting her aerospace career, her husband died from a brain tumor in 1956.

Three years later, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. And, the rest is history, so to speak…

When Virginia public schools began desegregating, in 1959, Johnson was calculating space-flight trajectories in Hampton, Virginia for Project Mercury, America’s first manned space-flight program.  Between 1959 and 1963, as America raced the Soviet Union in launching a human into earth orbit, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, on May 5, 1961. When NASA began using computers, she was asked to verify related calculations for the first American to actually orbit the earth, John Glenn, in 1962. Seven years later, she crafted America’s navigational track for the flight landing the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon’s surface.

Retiring from NASA in 1986, Johnson’s trailblazing career spanned 33 years of achievements, including: the Apollo Group Achievement Award and the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations Team Award, given in 1967, an honorary Doctor of Laws from SUNY (State University of New York) Farmingdale in 1998, the West Virginia State College “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year,” in 1999, and an honorary Doctor of Science, awarded by the Capitol College of Laurel, Maryland, in 2006.

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and Katherine Johnson

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and
Katherine Johnson

People like Katherine Johnson still make me proud!  The ‘missing pages of America’s classroom history books’ reveals many African-American mathematicians, from Benjamin Banneker, William Waldron Schiefflin Claytor (the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) and Elbert Frank Cox (the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) to William R. Talbot (the fourth African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics), J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. and Dudley Weldon Woodard (the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics).

But, the trials and tribulations of the inimitable Katherine Goble Johnson are even more compelling, in my opinion, because of the double whammy of deep-rooted racism and sexism against women in America.

(Also, see:, regarding the first the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.)

* Subtitles Credit:   From the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written by American Poet Emma Lazarus and engraved in bronze on New York’s “Statue of Liberty.”

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.